Choose your memes carefully. They might change your mood.
Like many of us, Dr. Jessica Gall Myrick, Ph.D., turned to memes as a distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic. The self-described animal lover found that dog memes, in particular, made the days a little more bearable, though a surge of pandemic memes meant there were plenty from which to choose.
Myrick, a professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University, took her observation about the calming effect of certain memes and decided to see if others had a similar reaction. The result was an intriguing experiment that explores the role memes can play in our emotional lives.
You don't have to look further than the debate over Facebook to understand why such an experiment could have compelling implications for internet and social media use. If science can provide clarity about what online experiences benefit people, perhaps users could press social media companies to design algorithms and digital environments that reflect those findings. Or maybe such research could give users the insight they need to make different choices about how they spend their time online.
But those are lofty aims. First, you might ask, how can a picture of a dog (wearing glasses and a turtleneck) framed by a witty caption make someone feel better? After all, it's not the same as petting a dog, a gesture that can lower stress hormone levels and release the feel-good hormone oxytocin in human beings. There's also plenty of internet content that, while delightful, prompts just a smile without reducing the viewer's stress. Then there's the fact that the best of the internet can't be separated from the worst of it — the disinformation, dunking, and shitposting — which quickly snaps people back into a more complicated reality, even if they felt momentary joy upon seeing a cute or clever meme.
Myrick's study, published Monday in Psychology of Popular Media, isn't designed to address all of these considerations. Instead, the highly-controlled experiment presented three memes to a portion of the 748 participants (a set of control groups saw just plain text). The content of these memes focused on animals and humans. Regardless of the species, the characters were both old and young, a contrast the researchers used to see whether such variation affected viewers' responses. Each image was paired with non-COVID or COVID-related text in an effort to understand if reactions changed based on the subject matter.
Myrick and her co-authors, University of California at Santa Barbara researcher Dr. Robin L. Nabi, Ph.D., and Penn State doctoral student Nicholas J. Eng, found that people who viewed humorous memes experienced an emotional boost compared to those in the study who didn't. When participants encountered memes specifically about COVID-19, they reported feeling less stress afterward. They also exhibited higher levels of information processing, which meant they spent more time contemplating the meme's message. Myrick thinks that such reflection in the context of entertaining content may have actually helped participants feel better equipped to cope with pandemic stress, at least in the moment.
Before you turn to your favorite meme account as a stress-reduction strategy, know that Myrick and her co-authors didn't measure how long the positive effects lasted. They also showed people memes outside of their personal social media feeds.
Myrick is confident in the findings but gets skepticism of the study. Though she expects similar results in the real world, Myrick acknowledged that what you might see before or after a gratifying meme could potentially mute or amplify its effects, depending on the content.
"Is it a curative for stress in a pandemic? Absolutely not," she says.
She does argue, though, that since positive moods serve as a type of "cognitive resource," those emotions position us to better process negative or bad information because we feel more confident in our ability to cope with it.
Imagine, for example, how seeing a funny meme that also feels relatable or cathartic in the time of COVID-19 can positively reorient your mood, even temporarily. You might then turn to your inbox and notice that a colleague sent a passive aggressive email. Instead of dashing off a nasty reply, you reconsider that approach thanks to feeling less stressed. Though Myrick has not studied or tested such a scenario, she imagines a kind of chain reaction wherein the colleague is disarmed by the graciousness and replies in kind.
"Engaging memes can offer us a useful perspective, some comfort, some sort of validation for our own experience during this time, and all of that can be psychologically beneficial," says Myrick.
Myrick's findings should be replicated by other researchers, and in real-world conditions, before people espouse the mood-boosting, stress-reducing effects of certain memes. Myrick says that if anything practical can be drawn from the experiment, it could be greater awareness of the possibility that when a meme makes you feel better in the moment it's a valuable psychological response. Though you might not consciously recognize that the sweater-wearing dog "rona" meme made you happy, you might consider how your emotional response to a meme potentially shapes your subsequent behavior.
Still, memes are far from simple. Dr. Whitney Phillips, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University who's studied memes and internet culture, said in an email that COVID discourses overlap with other political views, like the Stop the Steal movement and vaccine refusal. While cute animal memes are a pleasant way to encounter commentary about COVID, and may indeed elicit positive emotions, Phillips said so many other memes on the subject are "upsetting, false, or outright dangerous."
"[I]'d be particularly curious to see how viewing those memes in more everyday social media scrolling impacts mental health, both for people who don't believe in the truth of the meme content and those who do," said Phillips said, who is co-author of You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape.
She'd be eager to see future studies on people's regular media diets that include feedback from participants to isolate what online media and habits help them cope and what ultimately adds to their stress.
Phillips said that it's critical to remember that memes exist in a broader context. They're not just seen by an individual in a fast-moving feed. They're also shared socially, an act that adds meaning beyond the content of the meme itself. When someone you love shares an endearing meme, the effect may be much different than when you see the same meme posted by someone whose politics you loathe.
"The internet is a fundamentally ambivalent place — and so are memes," Phillips said. "Some can be uplifting and cute, while others can be poisonous and false (and encourage people to, say, attack the U.S. Capitol, or resist Covid health measures). And very often you encounter both kinds in the same feed."